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 Post subject: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 3:41 am 

Joined: Mon Jul 17, 2017 2:45 am
Posts: 4
I have an AKAI APC Key 25 and I'll soon have an AKAI MPD218. Probably going to get a Novation Launchpad Pro and Launch Control XL. Excluding these MIDI controllers, I don't plan to use any external instruments in the next few years (I have an electronic drum kit but I won't have access to it any time soon), though I may use my Zoom H4n to record vocals occasionally. So...

  1. Is an interface worth investing in? As I understand it, it would help with latency and playback/monitoring audio quality, but is it worth it if I'm only using MIDI tracks?
  2. The Zoom H4n can act as an audio interface, but would a dedicated but cheap audio interface (e.g. the options below) do a better job?

In terms of cheap audio interfaces, I could get:
  • a new Behringer UCA202 for £24
  • a new Lexicon Alpha for £44
  • a used 1st gen Focusrite 2i2 for £40-60
  • a used Steinberg UR12 for £65

Are any of these a good deal or do you have any better recommendations?


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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 4:14 am 

Joined: Sat Jul 16, 2011 12:41 am
Posts: 1699
In Mac it would make no difference, on windows an audio interface with good asio drivers can improve latency quite a bit, but from your list only the Steinberg UR has better drivers than the zoom.


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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 4:35 am 

Joined: Mon Jul 17, 2017 2:45 am
Posts: 4
Thanks for the quick reply login! Would you say it's worth using the Zoom as an interface or just go without and rely on my (Windows) laptop's sound card? My laptop is a Samsung Notebook 7 Spin, so it's decent but I doubt it has the best sound card.

If using the Zoom, other than connecting it via USB, what settings would I need to change in Ableton and/or my computer to see the benefit?


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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 10:37 am 

Joined: Wed Jun 25, 2014 11:34 am
Posts: 5366
andylaw31 wrote:
[*]Is an interface worth investing in? As I understand it, it would help with latency and playback/monitoring audio quality, but is it worth it if I'm only using MIDI tracks?
[*]The Zoom H4n can act as an audio interface, but would a dedicated but cheap audio interface (e.g. the options below) do a better job?[/list][/list]


A dedicated audio interface is always worth it, also on Macs IMHO. What comes out is audio, after all, so your thoughts about sound sources is irrelevant. Instruments, also software ones, put a heavier demand on the computer than pure audio sources.
You got the H4n so why not just use it and see what kind of buffer settings you can get away with? If you can get to 80% audio engine load and have a 64-256 sample buffer (out) that's pretty decent and 512 samples is possibly acceptable.

I'm not familiar with the others, so can't comment on those. I was very close getting a Focusrite though not the 2i2, but got RME instead.

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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 12:42 pm 

Joined: Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:30 pm
Posts: 1152
If you were recording no external audio at all, you do not need an interface. With modern computers the built in audio is good enough unless you're talking about building a professional grade studio. Macs historically have sounded better but I see more and more Windows computers advertised as having "premium" sound from JBL, Harmon Kardon, etc. This is true of any DAW, if everything is in the computer, all you need is some headphones and/or some type of speakers.

When I first demoed Live a decade ago I used a bottom-of-the-line Windows XP laptop, with the headphone output driving an old stereo system I had lying around for monitoring...it sounded fine and the latency was low enough for playing softsynths in real time. Keep in mind that the onboard audio has no effect whatsoever on the recorded audio, unlike the days when a crappy tape deck and mixer (like a portastudio) would limit the final sound quality. On playback a better interface and better speakers will simply reveal more of what's there.

An audio interface becomes a necessity when recording external audio. The audio inputs on most computers are total garbage. Yes, the H4n makes a good interface if all you will be doing is recording vocals using the onboard microphones and you're happy with the sound of those mikes.

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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:06 pm 

Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2017 8:14 am
Posts: 454
Location: Warsaw, Poland
Like @doghouse is saying, you don't need an audio interface if you're not recording external sources. Or are not a professional mixing / mastering engineer. However, what you need to be aware of using internal sound card - especially on laptops - is that they might have some additional processing turned on (Dolby, EQ-ing, volume normalisers) to compensate for the shitty speakers and you need to disable them in audio options to get the cleanest, flattest sound possible. Also, in most cases they might not be sufficient to drive high-impedance headphones or speakers that you'd want to use for even hobbyist music making, so you'd have to buy some sort of amp(lifier) eventually.

I was in such a situation recently (using Surface Pro 4, Arturia MiniLab, 250Ohm Bayerdynamics DT990 Pro) and instead of getting an interface which I'd have no real use for, I got a DAC / amplifier from FiiO: http://www.fiio.net/en/products/27. It does 24bit/96kHz, has separate headphones and speakers outs and is very, very small. I don't really hear huge difference in sound quality and latency isn't much better (I'm on Asio4All, because their Asio drivers wouldn't work at all in Live nor in Bitwig) but it now plays much louder via headphones and drives them more evenly due to the Hi Gain switch at the back. It's a great alternative if you don't need 'full' audio interface.


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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:42 pm 

Joined: Mon Jul 17, 2017 2:45 am
Posts: 4
Thanks for all the responses! Really helpful! A few follow-up questions...

  1. It seems like most people are suggesting an audio interface isn't necessary. Does that mean for my purposes the H4n won't be useful (except when recording vocals)?
  2. In order to get a clean tone with MME/DirectX as the driver type I had to have a latency of 5.8/23.2ms input/output (29ms overall). With ASIO as the driver type and setting the buffer size to 64 samples in the hardware setup/ASIO4ALL window, I can get 6.44/6.44ms (12.9ms overall) and a clean tone. Presumably this is decent enough for my use?
  3. To then get good audio quality in the monitoring, you'd recommend a DAC and decent monitors/headphones? I have a Fiio A3 but previous research suggested this is just an amplifier not a full DAC - would it do the job? I have RHA MA750 earphones and a Denon Envaya Mini speaker (as well as an older Gear4 HouseParty 5) - are these likely to give me good monitoring/better than my laptop's speakers?


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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:52 pm 

Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2017 12:08 pm
Posts: 165
Location: The Netherlands
I think a quality interface improves the quality of the sound you are monitoring either thru cans or studiomonitors. I assume you have a Winbased Laptop. Most of them have Realtek audio chips inside, and can be fun for youtube and stuff. But for more serious things such as musicmaking, a good interface is mandatory.......

If you are tight on money, a Focusrite is a good choice - sounds OK and ain't expensive. Also the latency will be reduced with a quality interface with good ASIO drivers.

Good luck!!!

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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 2:19 pm 

Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2017 8:14 am
Posts: 454
Location: Warsaw, Poland
andylaw31 wrote:
Thanks for all the responses! Really helpful! A few follow-up questions...

  1. It seems like most people are suggesting an audio interface isn't necessary. Does that mean for my purposes the H4n won't be useful (except when recording vocals)?
  2. In order to get a clean tone with MME/DirectX as the driver type I had to have a latency of 5.8/23.2ms input/output (29ms overall). With ASIO as the driver type and setting the buffer size to 64 samples in the hardware setup/ASIO4ALL window, I can get 6.44/6.44ms (12.9ms overall) and a clean tone. Presumably this is decent enough for my use?
  3. To then get good audio quality in the monitoring, you'd recommend a DAC and decent monitors/headphones? I have a Fiio A3 but previous research suggested this is just an amplifier not a full DAC - would it do the job? I have RHA MA750 earphones and a Denon Envaya Mini speaker (as well as an older Gear4 HouseParty 5) - are these likely to give me good monitoring/better than my laptop's speakers?


1) If you already have it, give it a try and see if it improves your latency, sound quality, etc.

2) Latency is very subjective IMO. If you actually play the MIDI keyboards or pads and record VST instruments that way then getting it the lowest you can should be a priority and I'd say anything >10ms is too high, but if you're mostly drawing stuff in the pianoroll with your mouse and use MIDI keyboard only to figure out melodies / chords and record control of some parameters, then it's less important and it might make sense to allow for higher latency and instead have more processing headroom for plugins.

3) Almost any speakers or headphones will be better than laptop's speakers - they're universally terrible :) Obviously, if possible you should try to get monitors with flat frequency response. The Denon Envaya Mini is a soundbar, which probably colourises the sounds quite substantially as it's geared towards entertainment use. The RHA MA750 headphones look like a much better option (based on their description on the web) for monitoring. Ideally you should go for something like Audio Technika ATH-M50x, which are popularly regarded as the best bang for the buck and then use the Denon, RHA and your laptop's speakers to check how your mix translates.


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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Tue Jul 18, 2017 4:03 pm 

Joined: Mon Jul 17, 2017 2:45 am
Posts: 4
So I decided to splash out on the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X monitors! As an update, I tested out the Novation Launchpad Pro and Launch Control XL this morning on a track I'd made with the AKAI APC Key 25 last night. I noticed one track/instrument was slightly distorted when playing live regardless of what sample rate I used in ASIO4ALL. This was resolved by plugging in and outputting to my Denon speaker but I think it might mean that I've nearly reached the limit of what my on-board sound card can manage. Does this sound about right? Perhaps with the ATH-M50X monitors the sound would be good, but I think I probably just need to get an interface. I tested the Zoom and couldn't get a clean sound using either the Zoom ASIO driver (not officially supported on Windows 10 by the looks of it) or the ASIO4ALL driver at any sample rate.

So is the Steinbverg UR12 a good option? Alternatively for £70 I could get a PreSonus AudioBox.


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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Tue Jul 18, 2017 6:31 pm 

Joined: Mon Oct 04, 2004 2:22 pm
Posts: 14138
the distortion is more likely an effect of overdriving the output. once you hit the real world via any D to A converter there is nothing above 0db but distortion. 1111111111... is a flat topped waveform.
Try turning everything down and see if it still distorts.

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 Post subject: Re: Audio interface necessary when just using MIDI controllers?
PostPosted: Tue Jul 18, 2017 7:09 pm 

Joined: Mon Jan 22, 2007 1:55 am
Posts: 1011
Location: Atlanta, Ga
andylaw31 wrote:
I have an AKAI APC Key 25 and I'll soon have an AKAI MPD218. Probably going to get a Novation Launchpad Pro and Launch Control XL. Excluding these MIDI controllers, I don't plan to use any external instruments in the next few years (I have an electronic drum kit but I won't have access to it any time soon), though I may use my Zoom H4n to record vocals occasionally. So...

  1. Is an interface worth investing in? As I understand it, it would help with latency and playback/monitoring audio quality, but is it worth it if I'm only using MIDI tracks?
  2. The Zoom H4n can act as an audio interface, but would a dedicated but cheap audio interface (e.g. the options below) do a better job?

In terms of cheap audio interfaces, I could get:
  • a new Behringer UCA202 for £24
  • a new Lexicon Alpha for £44
  • a used 1st gen Focusrite 2i2 for £40-60
  • a used Steinberg UR12 for £65

Are any of these a good deal or do you have any better recommendations?


An audio interface only really matter if you need to get external audio into your computer for either recording or effects processing.


Low latency can be achieved on either Mac or PC however Windows requires using an ASIO4ALL driver which can be downloaded for free.


If you don't plan on recording anything, you will save a little space by not having to carry an interface.

An interface will most likely have better sound quality specs as many built-in audio is probably only 16/44.1 or 16/48 capable but it is usually hard to hear a difference anyways.


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